In his 12 seasons at Georgia, Mark Richt still considers it “the best money we’ve spent” on a coaching consultant when Homer Smith spent time with the Bulldogs’ staff after the 2001 season.
“When I was at Florida State, we didn’t have many close games,” Richt said. “It wasn’t like every single week you’re dealing with that clock ticking. Where in this league, you better have a pretty good idea how to manage it or you’re going to have trouble.”
When Richt was quarterbacks coach for a Seminoles team running a shotgun, fast-paced, no-huddle offense in 1992 and 1993, he got to know Smith, an offensive coordinator at Alabama and UCLA. The two kept in touch. So when Georgia lost to Auburn in Richt’s first season after calling a running play at the 1-yard line with 16 seconds left that was stopped short of the goal line, he called on Smith to visit Athens.
“Somewhere along the way I knew he had written a book on time management, clock management,” Richt said. “We had our issue after that Auburn game and I said we need a better plan.”
The clock ran out on Georgia then just like it did in the Southeastern Conference championship game in a final 15 seconds that have been dissected in the two weeks since that Dec. 1 game.
Richt isn’t saying he needed a better plan in the 32-28 loss to Alabama, just better luck.
Aaron Murray’s back-shoulder fade to Malcolm Mitchell never reached the end zone. It was tipped at the line of scrimmage by C.J. Mosley, and receiver Chris Conley instinctively made the catch, slipping at the 5-yard line. Georgia never got another play off.
The Bulldogs came that close to playing for their first national title since 1980.
Georgia, which began the drive at its own 15-yard line, completed a 26-yard pass to tight end Arthur Lynch with 15 seconds left, but rather than spike the ball at the 8, Richt chose to hurry up and snap the ball. That came with 10 seconds left. It turned out to be the last play of the game.
“I thought we were going to call the spike,” said Murray, who signaled to the sideline for a spike. “I don’t think it was a bad call at all by them. It was open, it was there, we liked our matchup. … We just want to get a quick play to the end zone if we’ve got it with them on their heels.”
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier weighed in, according to the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier. He said he definitely would have spiked the ball.
“We all know that’s what he should have done,” Spurrier said. “Yeah, we all know that. They would have had two plays. But I don’t know. If they had hit a touchdown right there, it wouldn’t have mattered. But we all know you should do that (spike the ball).”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said during the postgame interviews that he would have spiked it if he could do it again.
Former Georgia safety Thomas Davis told the Charlotte Observer that he felt “we should have done a better job of clock management. I think if we spike the ball after we get that last first down, then we have at least two shots at the end zone. That can all be said now, but if he goes out and throws a touchdown pass on that play, then it’s different.”
Georgia players, who began bowl practices this past week, said they thought they could score a touchdown by snapping without spiking.
Richt said he hasn’t heard from coaching colleagues about if they would have done things differently.
“I don’t know what people do,” he said. “Even going back to Auburn, my biggest regret was we didn’t run as many plays as we possibly could. I gave our team one play less of an opportunity to score at the end. The goal by not spiking the ball was to try to get three plays instead of two. And to basically continue to do what we do. What we do is go fastbreak. The ball gets set down, we don’t spike it. We just call the play and run it. We just do what we do all the time. If other people do it a different way or all it takes is Gary Danielson to say, ‘You know, they should have spiked that ball.’ Then everybody decides that was a bad thing.”
Richt said he respects Danielson, the CBS analyst who he described as smart and sharp, but he noted that Danielson didn’t say while on air what Georgia should do after the Lynch catch.
“They can clock this ball right now, meaning ground it or they can run a hurry-up play,” Danielson said.
Following the clock running out on Georgia, Danielson said: “I thought they should have clocked the ball right away as soon as the umpire moved. Go down, ground that football and you get two throws to win the game.”
Richt’s answer to that: “Maybe the ball shouldn’t have gotten batted at the line of scrimmage. That’s really the issue, but everybody wants to think that’s the reason why the game ended. The game didn’t end because we didn’t spike it. The game ended because the ball got tipped and it landed in the hands of a guy in play.”
A revised version of Smith’s “The Complete Handbook of Clock Management” came out earlier this year.
Smith died in 2011. Steve Axman, a veteran coach who retired as offensive coordinator at Idaho after the 2011 season, worked on updating the book to reflect rule changes.
Axman was as an assistant under Smith at Army from 1976-78.
He said the rule of the thumb is if you have no timeouts and 28 seconds on the clock, you should be able to get off four passes as long as the throw is a touchdown or the ball is thrown away.
With 15 seconds, he said Georgia should have been able to get off two, perhaps three plays.
He said under Smith’s philosophy at Army, Georgia should have spiked the ball.
“Without a doubt,” Axman said from his home in Moscow, Idaho. “Why? Because there were only 15 seconds. You know you weren’t going to get four plays. You had no timeouts. So spike it and preserve and eat up only two seconds. You’d have time for two huddle-up plays.”
Axman coached during his career at UCLA, Washington, Stanford and was head coach at Northern Arizona.
“Having been an offensive coordinator for many, many years, if I spiked the ball and had 13 seconds left, I would have a list of plays sitting right in front of me, probably four plays for two situations to be able to choose from,” he said.
Richt said even if Georgia had spiked the ball, the same play would have been called. Spiking the ball, he added, would have given Alabama time to “gather up and get their senses and get their calls in.”
Said Axman: “I’m not going to disagree with him because he’s in a fast-paced tempo offense. The problem was there wasn’t an incompletion. In other words in relation to Homer Smith’s theory, he’s correct. You either throw for a touchdown or you throw an incompletion. Unfortunately there was a completion, tackle, game over.”
John T. Reed, author of “Football Clock Management,” which is now in its fourth version, said Georgia should have spiked the ball under his clock management philosophy after the catch with 15 seconds to play.
“No question, because you have more downs than you have time,” said Reed, a former high school football coach and West Point graduate with an MBA from Harvard. “You’re not giving up a down. … (Murray) should have spiked it. He shouldn’t have been checking to the sideline. It’s stupid clock management to not train the guy to do it in that situation.”
However, Reed, said he’s OK with Georgia’s thinking of not letting the defense get set but said a spike could have allowed Georgia to have three plays in 14 seconds since spiking the ball takes no longer than one or two seconds assuming a team gets lined up quickly.
“That sequence of three plays should have been decided in advance and practiced,” said Reed, who lives in Alamo, Calif. “You should have scripted this whole scenario — the spike and the three plays-bang, bang, bang — as fast as you can go.”
Conley said he didn’t think there would have been value to spiking the ball to make sure that players knew not to catch the ball like he did off the tip.
Georgia took five seconds to snap the ball.
“When I got in my stance there were still 15 seconds on the clock,” offensive guard Dallas Lee said. “I know there was some confusion in the backfield. That’s what I’ve heard.”
Said Mitchell: “It took us way too long to line back up. Then just a bad luck play at the end. …The play wasn’t bad. What happened was bad.”
“It is what it is,” center David Andrews said. “At the time walking off the field, you’re mad, you’re ticked off. At the end of the day, we played a hell of a football game. We went toe to toe with them. We gave them all they wanted to have. We just ran out of time.”